Diversity in Innovation: better together

Posted on: 12/12/2017

How global innovation agencies can work towards a more inclusive landscape.


“If we restrict those who can lead, and who can collaborate in innovation, then we restrict the breadth and depth of what we are able to achieve” – Kevin Baughan, Deputy Chief Executive, Innovate UK

In November 2017, Innovate UK and Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) hosted a workshop on Diversity and Inclusion in Innovation for members of European innovation network Taftie, with a roundtable discussion on shared challenges, global best practice, national approaches, and opportunities to collaborate on joint projects.

Around the table were representatives from the innovation agencies of the UK, Finland, Norway, Poland and the Czech Republic, along with guest speaker Adams Nager from the United States – public policy PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-author of The Demographics of Innovation in the United States.

Building a more inclusive landscape

Introducing the discussion, Innovate UK Deputy Chief Executive Kevin Baughan and KTN Director Sue Dunkerton underlined the UK’s commitment to diversity in innovation; with Baughan noting that equality, diversity, and inclusion are a key priority both for Innovate UK and for the nascent UK Research and Innovation.

As Emily Nott, Innovate UK’s Lead for Diversity and Inclusion Programmes, pointed out, diversity in business is proven to contribute to enhanced performance and commercial success. However, as evidenced by the experiences of all delegates, working towards sustainable diversity is an ongoing challenge that often necessitates a shift in societal perspective.

“It’s not just about hiring for diversity, but empowering for diversity,” said Baughan. “We think about numbers, but not necessarily about attitudes.”

In an Innovate UK survey of women innovators, for instance, 1/3 of those queried said that being a woman had negatively impacted their career.

It’s one of the reasons that Innovate UK launched a dedicated campaign for women innovators in 2016. There were over 1,700 registrations for the Women in Innovation competition; with 442 applications, 15 competition winners receiving a £50,000 grant, and a total of 31 award-holders receiving a bespoke business support package with senior business mentors and innovation advisors to help with pitching to investors, branding, and confidence-building.

A partnership with Getty Images that led to portraits of 12 award holders by leading photographer Amelia Troubridge and garnered 39 pieces of print and online media coverage, with a combined reach of 110 million. The exhibition is now touring the country at innovation events.

The investment and interest generated have resulted in significant positive impacts so far, from helping to build personal profiles (one award-holder was named in the Forbes 30 Under 30) and attracting significant additional investment to proving the potential of technology, accelerating the journey to market and driving sufficient growth for company founders to recruit additional staff. Innovate UK has seen the number of applications from women rise from 14% to 20%.

And yet, it’s clear there is still a long way to go. At KTN briefing events and workshops, only 20% of the delegates are women, and there is particularly limited diversity in major sectors such as infrastructure, transport, and energy.

But gender is only one dimension within the diversity and inclusion challenge. The next step for Innovate UK is a partnership with the Prince’s Trust to find and support young innovators with great ideas for business and help them turn this into reality. The #IdeasMeanBusiness campaign will encourage young people to take part in the Young Innovators’ programme and apply for awards offering financial support, practical tools and expert advice.

At KTN briefing events and workshops, only 20% of the delegates are women.

The American experience

Lack of diversity in innovation is an issue far beyond the UK’s borders. As Adams Nager found in his research for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, only 11.7% of innovators in the United States are women – and for those born in the country, ethnic minorities are notably under-represented. He sees expanding high-skilled immigration as key to solving this puzzle.

The US also faces similar challenges to the UK in its skills shortage and low productivity since the 2008 financial crisis. There is a need, said Nager, to increase public support in the United States for women and minorities in R&D and commercialisation and at an early stage, with better access to STEM subjects at school, including computer science. During the course of his research, Nager discovered that there were 9 US states where not one female student took the equivalent of ‘A’ level computer science.

The Nordic approach

There is a wholly different approach in the Nordic countries, where funding programmes specifically for women are woven into the fabric of innovation agencies and where the welfare model gives equal weight to men and women.

“Norway has reduced the barriers to enter male-dominated industries, thanks to flexible childcare solutions,” said Hilde Hukkelberg of Innovation Norway. “It’s not always about the money, but that you have the time and energy to do it. You can walk away from a meeting at 4 pm and log on again at 8 pm when the kids are in bed.”

In 2004, Norway also became the first country to mandate gender quotas on boards, with 40% women. Meanwhile in Finland, alongside childcare, there is support for new immigrants to set up businesses, according to Marita Paasi of Finnish innovation agency Tekes.

The focus in both countries is very much on a need for entrepreneurs, including women, to scale up. Hukkelberg pointed out that, while 60,000 companies were started in Norway last year, only 30% were led by female entrepreneurs – and the majority of these were sole traders in industries viewed as traditionally female, such as health, retail, and the service sector.

“We’re scaling high potential companies,” said Hukkelberg. “Entrepreneurs must have big ideas and ambition and be globally focused from day one.”

Paasi agreed: “We need to help women innovators at the ‘matchbox stage’ and scale,” she said.

Going global … and drilling down

Innovation Norway has offices in 29 countries around the world, while Tekes is working with developing countries such as India on innovation that can be scaled up into global markets.

Like Norway and Finland, Poland is engaging with innovators of diverse backgrounds on an international scale, by encouraging innovators from Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine to set up companies in Poland. Polish innovation agency PARP (Polska Agencja Rozwoju Przedsiębiorczości) will help entrepreneurs from these countries with visas and to incubate and accelerate their technology.

But Poland is also focusing on specific sectors to try and attract innovators from hard-to-reach demographic groups, including young people. “In Poland, women and young people are not the most active group,” said Karolina Piądłowska-Firlej of PARP, “so it’s better to match challenges to their interests.”

PARP runs incubator programmes for under-35s , such as a pilot in eastern Poland , which had over 1,000 applications and successfully incubated 200 start-ups. The programme will be continued for another five years, with more incubators in more cities across eastern Poland.

“We might have to focus on specific sectors within acceleration programmes in order to find the right experts and accelerate,” said Piądłowska-Firlej. “Because it is narrow, [the autonomous vehicle project – IMPACT Connected Car] attracted high quality companies to accelerate. Everything depends on the level of innovation and the state of the development of the company.”

Innovate UK recently took seven female founders working in Human Machine Interaction looking to grow global on an entrepreneurs mission to Boston. This enabled them to access the innovation ecosystem and engage with investors, business and academic partners, and learn from other companies that had successfully set up base in Boston and US government support frameworks.

A lot of the answer to getting diversity into innovation is that there has to be a mix of talents … We need women and men working in teams.

Sustaining the impact

In 2009, Innovation Norway launched a Female Entrepreneur of the Year Award. “If you ask, ‘is it still necessary in 2017?’, the answer is ‘yes’”, said Hilde Hukkelberg. “There is still a need to challenge organisational culture, challenge stereotypes in career choices, and change views on what makes a good director or line manager.”

In the UK, too, embedding diversity in innovation is still an evolving process, despite the tremendous success of Innovate UK’s Women in Innovation campaign. “We’re on a journey,” said Emily Nott. “We haven’t done quite enough yet – it needs an ongoing push.” Innovate UK is thinking about the future and where to shine the spotlight next.

Innovation agencies themselves have a role to play in promoting diversity, said Hukkelberg, pointing out that of Innovation Norway’s staff, 55% are women. Like Dr Ruth McKernan of Innovate UK, the agency’s CEO, Anita Krohn Traaseth, is a champion of diversity.

Adams Nager advocated an examination of the barriers to diversity in order to overcome those challenges. If venture capitalists perceive risk differently for male and female-led firms, said Nager, then governments need to demonstrate to investors that female-founded companies do make money.

“Serial entrepreneurs most often have failures behind them,” added Paasi, “but less failure is accepted by women.”

Hilde Hukkelberg suggested that an effective way to promote greater integration was also to consider potential, not just experience. “A lot of the answer to getting diversity into innovation is that there has to be a mix of talents – not background or gender, but core competence,” she said. “We need women and men working in teams.”

Working collaboratively

Given the pressing need for innovation agencies around the world to foster business growth through diversity, the workshop looked at immediate opportunities to work on joint projects supporting that aim.

One suggestion came from Karolina Piądłowska-Firlej of PARP, who invited fellow delegates to look at its CrossEUWBA Horizon 2020 project that runs training and pitching events for female entrepreneurs and business angels, and which PARP is hoping to expand to other international partners.

There is also scope for multilateral collaboration on a global review of diversity in innovation, led by Innovate UK. The immediate next step is a review to identify flagship diversity and inclusion programmes and policies, create a network of influential champions across different countries and highlight gaps and opportunities for future agency collaboration.

As every attendee at the workshop agreed, what’s needed is a campaign at a global level – starting with the small things that each of us does every day.


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